Reading through an I.U. journal over lunch the other day, I came across an
advertisement from the Indiana University Foundation with the arresting
question: "ARE YOU PLANNING TO LIVE FOREVER?" Well, I thought to
myself, I can't say that I am. But can I say that I'm not? The ad, however, said
"YOU CAN"--live forever, that is. "With the right planning." With a will you
can live on through your favorite I.U. program. [RESEARCH & CREATIVE
ACTIVITY, Vol. XXI, No. 1, April 1998, page 37]. That is one way of
dealing with the reality of human mortality.
Two Sundays ago I flew down to Tampa, Florida, for the second of four
gatherings of this year's Pastor-Theologian Program, sponsored by the Center
of Theological Inquiry at Princeton. Most of these are gatherings at which
about a dozen of us pastor-theologians get together to discuss papers and
books we have read as well as drafts of the papers each of us is preparing as our
project for this year. Last year our gatherings focused on issues in biblical
authority and interpretation. This year our focus is on eschatology.
Eschatology has to do with "end times," or with the Christian understanding of
the end and culmination of the world as we know it. So death, mortality, and
human finitude are part of this year's agenda.
The topic of eschatology was apparently chosen as a way of participating in
larger theological discussions that are taking place regarding the relationship of
science and religion. The reason for this, I gather, is that it is becoming
increasingly apparent from a scientific perspective that what we regard as the
world of God's creation will some day come to an end. There are various ways
to view this end. According to the latest cosmological theories, the universe
will ultimately either contract and collapse in upon itself or else continue to
expand indefinitely. In the one case everything will be compacted beyond
recognition, in the other case a slow "heat death" will result as the stars all burn
up, burn out, and die. In either case, no life will remain.
Long before that happens, however, any one of a multitude of other events
may--indeed, will--bring an end to life on earth if any life even remains by the
time they happen. The possibilities include impact with an asteroid or comet,
the dying out of our own sun, or the collision of two relatively nearby neutron
stars. In other words, from a scientific point of view, some day planet earth will
surely be destroyed. Before then, even if we do not destroy ourselves, we may
become either ice or toast.
As our discussions in this year's Pastor-Theologian Program have proceeded
through two gatherings, it does not appear that any of us has been particularly
shaken in our faith by this prospect of eventual planetary demise. Even the
prospect that our entire universe will some day end does not have us terribly
worried. Perhaps we should be, but it is so far off in the future that it hardly
seems real. What does seem real is the fact that each of us is mortal, that we
and all whom we love will die.
It may be, however, that at a deeper psychological level all of us are also
affected by the knowledge that some day our world will come to an end.
Certainly the movies have capitalized upon the prospect of planetary demise.
The recent box office hit "Armageddon" entertained the threat of asteroid
collision, and the previews are now promoting a film soon to premier called
"Life after Earth". In the movies, however, humankind always manages to find
a way to save itself from ultimate and final disaster, and--though I do not know
how it ends--I'll wager anything the humans win out in "Life after Earth.". It is
as if we are willing to entertain the threat of death, but only so long as we can
believe that the threat can be overcome. We imagine the possibility of death in
order to deny it. "Are you planning to live forever?" "You can," the
Foundation ad assures us. You can live on through your favorite Indiana
What the ad does not tell us is that some day Indiana University will be gone.
Some day Bloomington will no longer exist. Some day Indiana will be off the
map. God help us that we not commit nuclear holocaust or ecological suicide.
Even so, nothing will last forever. The heavens and this earth will pass away.
The bottom line in all of this is not just that some day each of us is going to die.
The bottom line is that there is no way any of us can insure any permanently
enduring significance for ourselves.
The point to this brief review of the human prospect is not to push us into
despair, but to heighten the question, How are we, then, to live? How are we
to live in the face of the knowledge of the end? How are we to live knowing
that we will die? How are we to live knowing that all things and all persons we
love and cherish will also die? Samuel Johnson wrote to Boswell, "Depend
upon it, Sir, when a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates
the mind wonderfully." When we human beings know that life is finite, that we
do not have "forever," what does it do for us?
The strange thing is that it is not clear. At some level, all human beings know
that they are going to die. But we do not all deal with this knowledge in the
same way. I am reminded of the cartoon of the doomsday prophet carrying the
sign, "The end is at hand--so you better shape up!" Others hear the same
message and respond, "Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die!" There
are differences among individuals and there are differences among cultures in
how we deal with the knowledge of our own finitude and death.
A couple weeks ago Nancy Barlow forwarded an e-mail from her brother
reporting on how someone else, here known as "Woody," had tried to prepare
himself for Y2K. "Woody . . .went a long way toward preparing himself for
any eventuality. He stored food, water, gas, and other essentials. He also
bought a shotgun and ammo, (about which his wife . . . commented, "if things
get that bad, shoot me first"). But the major purchase was a new large
generator. On Thursday, December 30, he fired up the generator and
proceeded to burn out his furnace, computer, video, and refrigerator. It turned
out that the voltage was too high," and that he may not have "turned off the line
power before starting the thing up. At any rate, at that point he had a Y2K
problem of his own doing, and it is probably a good thing that he had stored up
all those supplies" [January 19, 2000, e-mail forwarded from Nancy's brother
This is a kind of parable about how some people deal with the realities of
finitude and all sorts of possibilities including the prospect of the end. We try
to stave off disaster. We prepare ourselves for the worst. We may even
imagine ourselves engaged in a struggle or a battle against our neighbors. In
the face of threats--real or imagined--to our own existence, we contemplate
actions that are at odds with our basic values and commitments in life. And
from this narrow, truncated, survival-at-all-costs perspective on life, we often
precipitate our own undoing.
Theologian Douglas John Hall recently gave an address to a gathering of
Presbyterians in which he suggested that we Christians have failed to speak to
the fundamental anxiety of our age. He thinks this is perhaps "because of our
great hesitancy to enter into the anxiety that shapes our own epoch: the
meaninglessness and despair that Kierkegaard called a 'sickness unto death.'"
Hall went on to say:
Yet we must enter this darkness. For any convincing expression of
'salvation' has to be forged on the anvil of the peculiar damnation that is
its negative backdrop. If for guilt one wants to offer forgiveness, one
has to become consciously and articulately guilty with the guilty. If for
death and destiny one wants to offer liberation, one has to enter the dark
realms of mortality and oppression. And if for meaninglessness and
despair one wants to offer a gospel of purpose and hope, one has to
experience--in one's person, and in the corporate person of the church--the 'sickness unto death'" ["Confessing Christ in a Post-Christendom
Context," address to the 1999 Covenant Conference, Convenant
Network of Presbyterians, Atlanta, GA, November 5, 1999].
That is to say, whatever good news we Christians have to proclaim must
address the particular form of anxiety that marks our culture. And for us to be
able effectively to formulate and express that good news, we must identify with
and experience ourselves the anxiety that permeates the lives of others. As Hall
sees it, today's pervasive anxiety is not that of sin and guilt. He suggests that
perhaps the Christian religion has put far too much emphasis upon sin. The
most important word that Christians have to proclaim may not be the word of
divine forgiveness, as important as that may be. Because the pervasive anxiety
of our time has rather to do with meaningless, finitude, and death. And what is
most needed in this context is a gospel of compassion and hope.
Another way to approach this is to ask, What is the basic human condition? If
we answer that the basic human condition is sin, then we need a gospel that
deals with the realities of sin. We need a gospel of judgment, forgiveness, and
grace. But if we answer that the basic human condition is finitude, then we
need a gospel that deals with the realities of human limits and mortality and
creaturehood. It may not be a question of either-or, but it is a question of
emphasis. And today it seems that the emphasis needs to be on the problem of
meaninglessness in the face of human finitude. How are we to live and act with
hope and purpose, given our own limitations and the limitations of others, in a
world that we must increasingly acknowledge will not last forever?
Within this question there are at least two distinct questions. One has to do
with how we are to relate to others, the other has to do with how we are to
relate to ourselves. First, how are we to relate to others--other finite, mortal
creatures like ourselves? If you hate the other, then I suppose you are going to
want to get in as many licks as possible while you have the chance. You do not
have forever, so you will want to do as much to destroy the other as quickly as
you can. But if you love the other, what then?
Hall offers this perspective, based on his reading of the New Testament: "It is really quite surprising how often the world 'compassion' appears as the primary response of Jesus to human situations, both personal and collective. . . Compassion is evoked in Jesus, and in those whom Jesus calls, not by the recognition of human guilt, though it is certainly true that we are guilty . . . But Jesus' compassion arises in response to our finitude--that is, the strange admixture of possibility and impossibility that constitutes the being of the human.
As the gospels present him, Jesus conveys an astonishing empathy with the
broken human beings whom he encounters; and it is only through this
compassionate identification with their brokenness that he is able to become
their healer" [ibid.].
Compassion is a core dimension of love, love that recognizes the brokenness
and finitude we share, the strange admixture of possibility and impossibility that
marks the human condition. Compassion does not call upon us to forgive
others for being human so much as it calls upon us to accept others as being
human. It calls upon us to feel with and for others out of the brokenness and
finitude that we share with them. In our celebration of the Lord's Supper, we
speak of Christ's body "broken" for us. This is the remembrance that Jesus
shared our finitude, our limitations, our suffering, our dying and death. This is
the testament of his solidarity with us in the human condition. This is the
witness of his compassion for all sorts and conditions of human beings.
So the knowledge of our finitude may at least move us to compassion toward
our neighbors. But how does this knowledge of our finitude affect us in
relation to ourselves? Again, there may be no single answer to this question,
but it seems to me that one thing most of us seek for ourselves is a sense of
integrity, or wholeness, or completion. Eric Erikson, in his developmental
psychology, identified integration and integrity of human personality as the
major challenge of mature adult life. A sense of integrity depends upon a sense
of a life well-lived, given the limitations and the potentials of one's existence. It
requires a coming to terms and acceptance of what one has been able to be and
do, given that "strange admixture of possibility and impossibility" that
constitutes one's being human. It is a conviction that one has "fought the good
fight." It is an affirmation of meaningfulness in light of the context in which
one's life has been lived.
Both compassion toward others and integrity in oneself are responses to the
human condition of finitude, mortality, and creaturehood. These are modes by
which we accept and affirm others and ourselves as finite human beings. The
cynic or the skeptic might say that these are merely means by which we defend
ourselves from the ultimate meaninglessness of our existence. What does it
really matter, if we are all headed for final destruction? Nothing lasts forever,
so why bother?
But the person who is compassionate will respond that he could not bear to live
in a world that is unfeeling and uncaring, indeed, that it is through compassion
that the fullness and depth of life's riches are to be experienced and enjoyed.
And the person of integrity will respond that she could not live with herself if
she were untrue or unfaithful to those persons and values and causes in relation
to which her life is constituted as a meaningful whole, indeed, that apart from
integrity all of life's benefits and rewards would hardly seem real and
In other words, the proof is in the pudding. The meaning of life is not hidden at
the end of our journey. It is not the prize at the end of the rainbow. It is not
the answer that is buried in the back of the book. What we find of ultimate
value and meaning in life is somehow available to us now, or we could hardly
know to hope for it at all. Which is to say, in the words of Jesus, "the kingdom
of God is at hand."
In our text this morning from Romans, Paul emphasizes that God is the one
with whom we have ultimately to do: "each of us will be accountable to God,"
he says. He says that by way of telling the Roman Christians that they are not
to be in the business of passing final judgment upon one another. "Why do you
pass judgment on your brother or sister? Or you, why do you despise your
brother or sister?" According to Paul, we all ought to know better than that.
The ultimate disposition of all things rests in the hands of God.
On the other hand, it is not as if we must wait until the final curtain has fallen
before we know what the drama is all about. Throughout the Bible, the authors
of the scriptures witness to the present experience and reality of God. In our
Old Testament text words are attributed to King Hezekiah, who became sick
and despairing of life but then recovered. "The living, the living, they thank
you, as I do this day" he exclaims. The passage concludes with words of
rejoicing, "we will sing to stringed instruments all the days of our lives, at the
house of the LORD" [Isaiah 38:19, 20].
"All the days of our lives." Not just when it's over. Not just at the end.
Whatever there is to know and love of God is available to us now. What is of
ultimate significance in human existence is not a puzzle to be worked out after
all is said and done. Rather, in each day we are given access to the ultimate
source and meaning of life. In each day God is present by the Spirit. In each
day we may experience the goodness of life, the value of existence, the joy of
creation. In each day we can give thanks!
One of the former pastors of this church, Joe Walker, is remembered for saying,
"Life is so daily." The way I have heard others repeat it, it sounds like a
counsel to take life as it comes, a day at a time, and not to worry about or try to
plan too thoroughly for what might happen tomorrow. But "life is so daily" in
another sense as well. It is precisely in today, not yesterday or tomorrow, that
the fullness of life is given. In this sense we really do not need to look to
tomorrow. After all, tomorrow may never come. So let's not miss the
prospects and joys of life today, and let's not fail to share what we can of love
and hope today.
The real challenge is to live all the days of our lives with awareness and openness to the present reality of God in our midst, with compassion toward our neighbors with whom we share the gift of life, and with an inner integrity that is borne of the faithful struggle to be and do whatever, by God's grace, we can be and do, within the limits of time and space and all that makes us human. We can be and do no more. We need be and do no more. Let us content ourselves to leave the rest in the hands of God. AMEN.